TIGER KICKOFF: Big 12 Conference at a crossroad

Friday, October 8, 2010 | 5:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:54 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 10, 2010

COLUMBIA — "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."

The Roman philosopher Seneca said that. Or maybe it was the Zen poet Basho. Or 1990s one-hit wonder band Semisonic.

Whoever said it, they were right. The end was near for the Big 12 Conference, and while the league will soldier on without Nebraska and Colorado in 2011, it will be a new beginning for the Big 12 conference.

New schedules, new expectations and a new volatility await.

The Big 12 isn't the Ivy League. It isn't immune to change, impervious to evolution. When the Big Six became the Big Seven, Missouri was there. In 1964, when the Big Seven became the Big Eight, Missouri hung around. In 1994, when the eight joined with the Lone Star State to become 12, Missouri was there. The biggest conference in the plains and prairies has been trending upward in numbers and clout for decades. 

But at the end of the 2010-11 season, the Big 12, for the first time, will trend down.

Nebraska, unhappy with its place in the now south-dominant conference, will bolt for the cash-laden Big Ten Conference in 2011. Colorado will join the expansion-happy Pac-12 at the same time. But after a summer of frenzied speculation and conference flirtation, losing just two teams might have been the best-case scenario for the Big 12. 

"We want to get on with our future, which is very bright and exciting," Dan Beebe, the Big 12 Conference commissioner, said. "Given the conditions as they are, I have a great deal of confidence in 10 members in the conference remaining ... We're in a pretty stable position right now."

That's an upgrade from the critical condition the Big 12 was in this summer before Texas spurned Larry Scott's offer to join the Pac-10 Conference. It proved what the rest of the Big 12 had suspected. Texas is calling the shots. If the Longhorns leave the conference, the Big 12 is done.

Even Beebe admits, "Texas is in a powerful position."

Don’t mess with Texas

Texas remained with the Big 12 in part because of the conference’s enviable position of having television contract negotiations around the corner. With contracts expiring in 2012 with Fox and in 2016 with ESPN, the Big 12 will soon enter a TV marketplace that is hungry for live sports.

That's why Beebe, after talking to analysts and television networks, told Texas this summer that once the new television contracts for the Big 12 were signed, the Longhorns would pull in $20 million annually — on par with what schools in the SEC and Big Ten make now, and the Pac-10 will soon make.

Currently, Big 12 schools make between $7 million and $10 million annually through television revenue sharing. Under the new agreement, the other schools in the conference will see increases in shared revenue. But it will be unequal sharing, and that could cause problems.

John Mansell, a sports media consultant based in Great Falls, Va., doesn’t think the revenue sharing numbers promised to Texas by the Big 12 will be reached. But he isn’t writing off the Big 12 just yet. He said the television contract the Big 12 will likely sign will be less, but close to the SEC’s 15-year, $2 billion television contract with ESPN.

Mansell also said that while the Big 12 brand took a hit this summer, the marketplace for sports programming has risen so quickly in the past decade, that it doesn’t really matter.

“I’m not sure the Big 12 brand diminished all that much. It will hurt a little, not a lot,” Mansell said. “Look at the other side of the coin, the appetite for sports programing has risen significantly. Look at a channel like Versus, run by NBC-Comcast. They’re looking to become competitive in the marketplace, and then possibly ESPN is willing to step up.”

In the satellite television, YouTube world of 2010, sports is one of the only things networks can put on the air that will still sell advertising, Mansell said.

“Just on an average weekend, there is a tremendous amount of sports programing on air, over a dozen games,” Mansell said. “And that’s with dramatically diminished ratings, as every network has seen across the board. But for sports, ad rates continue to rise. That continues to happen because of threats. The one way old media can keep advertising is sports.”

Texas also announced that it would be starting its own television network, something it would not have been allowed to do if it joined the Pac-10.

A team monopolizing the media rights of their games has been done before in the professional ranks — the New York Yankees and Mets both own the networks that broadcast their games — but Texas is the first to try it at the collegiate level. The Longhorn Sports Network has been in the works since 2008, and it is expected to be reality in 2011.

Like all television networks, the first few years are expected to be lean, but Mansell said the Longhorn Sports Network will ultimately be successful.

“I’d compare it to Notre Dame’s contract with NBC ($9 million to Notre Dame annually through 2015),” Mansell said. “Notre Dame has been, by and large, a big disappointment for a decade, and yet they still have that contract. Both schools have a huge following. It just depends on how many football games Texas would have to sell.”

With a stranglehold on the Big 12 Conference, a $24 billion endowment and unparalleled current and future revenue streams, ESPN football columnist Pat Forde said Texas is the nation’s most powerful school, and it doesn't look to be dethroned any time soon. 

Doom on the schedule

A 10-team Big 12 Conference will do away with a conference football championship game and will go to a round-robin schedule in which every school will play every other Big 12 school starting in 2011. Every year, for however long the Big 12 can hold itself together, Pinkel and the Missouri Tigers will face Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. 

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was coy when asked this week if he had thoughts on the new schedule.

“I really didn’t spend a lot of time looking at them,” Pinkel said. “I’m not a big guy on — you know, give me a schedule, that’s a schedule. That’s life ... I looked at it for about five minutes and then started focusing on Colorado.”

Beebe said that the round-robin football schedule will make the Big 12 the best football conference in the nation. Why? Texas, of course.

“Everybody’s future is going to be best (in the Big 12),” Beebe said. “How many Texas players does Missouri have on its team, 30? This is going to give schools a chance to get better and better. Teams get to go to Texas twice a year … it makes it easier to recruit the Texas athlete.”

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Texas officials admitted this summer that the possibility of a Big 12 without a conference championship game enticed them. It's one less obstacle to getting into a BCS bowl. And with those BCS bowls comes big money. With unequal revenue sharing in the Big 12 continuing in the 10-team conference, Texas is set up to receive a massive chunk of that BCS cash. Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M are now the upper class of the Big 12 — all promised $20 million annually this summer.

Some argue that promising those schools big bucks was the only way to keep the conference together, but the only way to deliver on the promise was to keep the unequal revenue sharing.

That was what made Missouri interested in leaving, was a key reason Nebraska left and for all practical purposes was why Texas stayed.

It might also be what ultimately tears the conference apart. While school officials have so far kept quiet, Texas Tech football coach Tommy Tuberville said he thinks the unequal revenue sharing will be the end of the Big 12.

“(Equal sharing) doesn’t happen here in the Big 12,” Tuberville told Rivals Radio in July. "We have some teams that get a little bit more money ... and when that happens, you’re gonna have teams looking for better avenues to leave and reasons to leave. We have a 10-team league right now, but I just don’t know how long that’s gonna last, to be honest with you.”

Forde agrees with Tuberville that the biggest threat to the 10-team Big 12 is an internal threat.

"I think (unequal revenue sharing) is going to be a pretty significant issue, because its creating unequal teams, and the conference isn’t going to be competitive from top to bottom. The inequity is only going to get worse,” Forde said.

Beebe said Wednesday that there is no contention among the haves and have-nots of the conference.

“There’s really none. We feel that it has been accepted, and that it’s not discriminatory,” Beebe said. “Everyone has a chance to reach the same level of distribution if they are on television and perform well in the basketball tournament.”

Beebe had a simple, patriotic way of describing unequal revenue sharing.

“It’s the American way,”  he said.

What’s next?

For the forgotten four, Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State, there are still options available.

"There’s some sentiment that they could be swept over to the Big East,” Forde said. “It would create a crazy basketball conference, but it would provide the Big East with some football stability. I’d say it’s their best option.”

But for Missouri, after flirting with the Big Ten in the spring, options are limited.

“Missouri’s damaged goods. The Big Ten, for whatever reason, deemed Missouri undesirable this summer,” Forde said. “The Big Ten didn’t want them, the Big 12 is angry with them — it’s not a good spot to be in.”

Until the next major conference realignment, Missouri will remain in the precarious position of waiting, just in case the Big Ten needs a filler school to even things if Notre Dame decides to join.

And hopes for the Big 12 expanding back to 12 teams are also limited. Beebe said that he will “keep his ear to the ground,” and make appropriate moves if he thinks they are necessary. But adding schools like TCU, Memphis or Louisville would require approval from the conference's top teams.

“There’s no reason 10 can’t work,” Forde said. “If they wanted to go to 12, they would have to convince Texas and Oklahoma, and they’re pretty happy with not playing a conference championship game.”

But Scott and the Pac-10 have made it clear that a 16-team conference interests them, and there isn't anything stopping Scott from inviting Texas into the conference after this season. But Beebe is confident in the camaraderie of the Big 12.

“It’s a compromise, like in any relationship,” Beebe said. “I didn’t get everything I wanted, you didn’t get everything you wanted, but let’s work together and do the best we can. That’s where the administrators are.”

But the possibility lingers that another conference crisis is approaching.

“It’s only static for as long as it’s static,” Forde said.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Ellis Smith October 8, 2010 | 10:08 a.m.

If I were a Missouri Tiger football fan I most definitely wouldn't hold my breath while waiting for an invitation for MU to join the Big Ten Conference.

That ship apparently has sailed.

(Report Comment)
Donald Lawhorne October 8, 2010 | 2:30 p.m.

"That's an upgrade from the critical condition the Big 12 was in this summer before Texas spurned Larry Scott's offer to join the Pac-10 Conference. It proved what the rest of the Big 12 had suspected. Texas is calling the shots. If the Longhorns leave the conference, the Big 12 is done."

Huh? texas calling the shots? texas was off to the pac10 until A&M called their bluff by indicating Pac10 wasn't for them and the SEC was their intended destination. Why does everyone bow down at the alter of the cow?

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.